A Squared: January 2014

Friday, January 31, 2014

Weekend Brunch: Poached Eggs over Chorizo, Pepper, & Potato Hash

Looking for a tasty take on brunch this weekend? I recently made this chorizo, pepper, and potato hash with poached eggs for dinner (because my husband loves a good brinner), but it would make an excellent brunch too!

I had a few leftover Usinger's chorizo links that I needed to use up recently and thought they would be delicious incorporated into a hash. A potato hash is so versatile-- you can transform it into a completely different meal every time you make one just by altering the veggies and spices you add into it. Since I was using Spanish-style chorizo I decided to incorporate some flavorful paprika and sweet red bell peppers with a little cayenne for heat into this hash. If you have smoked paprika on hand, I highly recommend using that because the flavor is just amazing. However, if you only have traditional paprika that will work just fine too.

Topped with a soft poached egg-- a runny yolk is key-- this is a perfect one dish meal. 


  • 1 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil
  • 6 oz. Spanish chorizo, diced
  • 1 yellow onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 red bell pepper, seeded, ribs removed, diced
  • 6-8 redskin potatoes, cut into 1/2-inch dice (with skin)
  • 1/2 Tbs. smoked paprika
  • 1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • up to 1/3 cup chicken broth (optional)*
  • 1 Tbs. white vinegar
  • 2 eggs

In a large skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add chorizo to the pan and cook for 4-5 minutes until browned, stirring occasionally. Add onion, garlic, bell peppers, and potatoes to the pan and stir to combine.

Reduce heat to medium and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until vegetables begin to soften. Stir in in paprika, cayenne, and season with salt and pepper. Continue cooking for another 20-25 minutes until potatoes are browned and soft.

*Sometimes the potatoes start to dry up over this process and then they stick to the pan. If you encounter that, drizzle a little chicken stock in to moisten the mixture and stir through as needed.

Once the potatoes are close to being cooked through, crack each egg into a separate small bowl (like a ramekin), being sure not to break the yolks.  Fill a saute pan 3/4 of the way full with water and bring to a boil.  Add vinegar and reduce heat to a simmer.  Carefully drop the eggs into the water one by one (leaving a good amount of space between each ).  Cook for 4-5 minutes until the whites are set and gently remove from the pan with a slotted spoon.  Drain water from the eggs.

Fill a shallow bowl with the warm hash and top with a poached egg. Serve immediately.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Recent Chicago Restaurant Visits: Burger Bars

Today's restaurant roundup is dedicated to one of America's favorite foods: the burger.

Like donut shops and farm-to-table restaurants, Chicago has seen an abundance of burger bars pop up in the past year or two. I have told you about a handful of them in previous posts: Butcher & the Burger, DMK Burger Bar (Lombard), Grange Hall Burger Bar, and Kuma's Corner. Recently though, Alex and I have been on a bit of a burger kick and have visited several other burger joints. Who knew there were so many here?! Here are three more burger places in three different neighborhoods, so you can grab a great burger no matter where you are...

Burger Bar
Lincoln Park

Burger Bar is one of my favorite places to eat in the North/Clybourne shopping area of Lincoln Park. I generally consider this area to be a bit of a restaurant desert, so when we're up here and doing some shopping we make a point of stopping in at Burger Bar.

Burger Bar has an excellent selection of craft beers and an even better selection of creative burger combinations. There is most definitely something for everyone on the menu here. It's one of the few restaurants that we go to regularly and I don't order the same thing every time-- there are just too many good options! They have tons of options here: an elk burger, a shrimp burger, and a bison burger that I love called the Wild Bill. It's topped with arugula, goat cheese, and tomato chutney all on a pretzel roll. That's pretty much all of my favorite items inside of a pretzel bun. And it's good. This time around, I went a little lighter and ordered one of their "Alt Burgers": A light and crunchy grain-based veggie burger served with arugula, goat cheese (noticing a pattern here?), avocado, tomato, chipotle mayo. I don't often order a veggie burger, but I was craving something a bit lighter for lunch that day and it was exactly what I wanted. 

I don't know that we have ever had anything bad here. The mac and cheese is rich and delicious, the fried pickles are amazing, and the sweet potato fries are my go to side. They are super crispy and tossed in a little cinnamon and sugar. I love them!
Burger Bar on Urbanspoon

Rockit Burger Bar

Rockit Burger Bar is the Wrigleyville-based burger focused sister spot to River North's always busy Rockit Bar & Grill. I have been here a handful of times before, but this was my first time since Rockit has gone full burger bar and I was pleasantly surprised. Normally you get overpriced drinks and mediocre bar food in the Wrigleyville neighborhood, but we actually had a really great dinner here.

Rockit serves a variety of burger options: from the traditional to the inventive (like their ridiculous Mac Attack-- a burger with fried mac and cheese patties in place of buns) and from vegetarian to all beef, they have an option for every burger lover out there. Alex ordered The Farmhouse burger, which was piled so high with pulled pork, bacon, and a fried egg that he had to eat it with a fork and knife... but he sure did enjoy it! I went for the Johnny Appleseed burger with a turkey patty. The burger a really generous size and super moist-- especially for a turkey burger. And the toppings were so delicious! Neuske's bacon, diced apples, melty brie cheese, and a really tasty pecan aioli were all piled on top (another fork and knife-worthy burger) and this burger was served with Billy Dec's signature sweet potato fries. I didn't even have to order them! Although, I still would have... Like Burger Bar, this sweet potato fries were tossed in cinnamon and sugar for a perfect touch of sweetness.

So, if you find yourself in Wrigleyville and in search of a great meal, look no further than Rockit Burger Bar. Tasty burgers, a great drink selection, and a fun atmosphere-- the perfect spot for
 a laidback date night, drinks and snacks with friends, or a pre-Wrigleyville party meal.
Rockit Burger Bar on Urbanspoon

25 Degrees
River North

Last, but not least, is a restaurant that I have already told you a little bit about: 25 Degrees. The fanciest of the 3 burger bars I am featuring here, 25 Degrees has a trendier River North vibe versus the more laidback atmospheres of the other two northside restaurants. It's still a burger bar, so we aren't talking white tablecloths, but the restaurant is dimly lit with chic bordello-inspired decor so it feels a little more bar and less burger bar.

That said, the burgers here are fantastic. 25 Degrees has four burgers that they've created on the menu in addition to a variety of interesting items available a la carte to create your own burger. Normally I take the a la carte route in a situation like this, but burger #2 looked so good that I didn't even feel the need to create my own! This burger was served with roasted tomatoes, burrata, crispy prosciutto, and pesto on a soft brioche bun. I did edit it slightly by adding sweet caramelized onions and subbing in a turkey burger, but wow, was it good! The burgers are huge and juicy and all of the ingredients are good quality so no matter how you customize yours, it will be really tasty. Alex went with BBQ sauce, jalapeno bacon, a fried egg, and habanero jack on his spicy burger.

Sides are all served a la carte here as well, which makes them perfect for serving. The fries are good, but the onion rings are definitely my favorite-- they're coated in a delicious crispy batter with generously cut rings of sweet onion inside. And don't forget a spiked milkshake! Alex and I split one of these ice cream cocktails for dessert and it was kind of amazing. They have a variety of flavor combinations available, but we went with the Night Owl: a combination of Trader Vic's, Godiva Dark Chocolate Liqueur, and chocolate ice cream. It was really rich, chocolatey, and the perfect sweet way to end our meal.
25 Degrees on Urbanspoon

P.S. Have you checked out my new Restaurant Guide page yet? Find all of my Chicago restaurant posts and reviews arranged here by neighborhood and cuisine for your convenience!

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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

What's For Dinner Wednesday: Slow Cooker Salsa Verde Pork Tacos

Looking for another easy recipe to serve to your hungry Super Bowl party guests? Look no further than these salsa verde pork tacos!

The combo of tangy and spicy jarred salsa verde along with fresh onions and jalapenos give the pork a really unique flavor. Slow cooking it for several hours makes it perfect for shredding and serving in tortillas.

This recipe could not be easier and is perfect for your party: Only a handful of ingredients, very little prep work, and they all go right into your slow cooker to cook all day. And that's all you have to do! Set up a bar of taco toppings and let your guests assemble their own. Done and done!


  • 1 Tbs. canola oil
  • 2 lbs. pork (tenderloin or shoulder), trimmed and cut into large chunks
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1 large yellow onion, cut into large dice
  • 2 jalapeno peppers, seeded, ribs removed, and diced
  • 16 oz. jar good quality salsa verde *I used Herdez brand
  • Tortillas and taco toppings, for serving

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Season pork with salt and pepper and add to pan. Sear pork on all sides until browned and add to a slow cooker. Add onion, peppers, and salsa to the slow cooker and cook on low, stirring occasionally, for 8 hours.

Remove pork from slow cooker and shred with forks. Add back to the slow cooker and combine with the remaining sauce. Keep warm until ready to serve in tortillas with your favorite taco toppings.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Red Gold Lasagna Party: Zesty Italian Chicken Sausage & Zucchini Lasagna

Recently, the nice people over at Red Gold invited me to a Lasagna Party. This sounded like my kind of party, so of course, I was in!

Red Gold is one of my go to brands for canned tomatoes-- which I use in so many different recipes. They have been around for more than 70 years and are based right here in the Midwest, so the majority of their produce is locally grown in Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana. I am sucker for local products-- especially high quality ones like Red Gold.

They were generous enough to send me my very own Lasagna Party Kit (filled with all of the non-perishable lasagna essentials) so that I could host my very own party! Also included in the kit was a recipe for Red Gold's foolproof All-In-One Lasagna. Knowing that lasagna can be a bit intimidating to make, they created a recipe that is super easy to follow and makes a perfect lasagna-- or the perfect base for creating a gourmet lasagna that is all your own!

Red Gold has already come up with some fabulous recipes for simple gourmet lasagnas that involve just a few tweaks to the basic All-in-One recipe like Chicken Parmesan Lasagna, Eggplant Florentine Lasagna, and Fresh Harvest Lasagna.

Never one to turn down a cooking challenge, I decided to use Red Gold's All-In-One recipe as a base for my very own lasagna: Zesty Italian Chicken Sausage & Zucchini Lasagna. I decided to spice up the sauce a little with some crushed red pepper flakes. To the layers of pasta, cheese, and sauce, I added super thinly sliced zucchini rounds and some Italian chicken sausage. It was the perfect way to shake up a traditional lasagna, adding great flavors, some heat, and even a little bit of nutrition, without a ton of additional work.

My Lasagna Party guests loved the results-- and I was pretty pleased with them myself!

Want to join the Lasagna Party? Check out Red Gold's Facebook page (for a chance to win a fun lasagna party pack of your own!) and create your own Red Gold lasagna and post it online with the hashtag #RGLasagna.

Zesty Italian Chicken Sausage & Zucchini Lasagna

  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 (28-oz.) can Red Gold® Crushed Tomatoes
  • 2 (14.5-oz.) cans Red Gold® Diced Tomatoes With Basil, Garlic & Oregano
  • 1 tsp. Italian seasoning
  • Salt, to taste
  • 16-oz. box lasagna noodles, traditional, uncooked
  • 15 oz. low fat ricotta cheese
  • 3 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
My additional ingredients:
  • 3/4 tsp. red pepper flakes
  • 1 medium zucchini, cut into very thinly sliced rounds *I used a mandolin to get them super thin and even
  • 1 package Italian chicken sausage (4 links), cut into 1/4-inch rounds

Servings: 12
Preparation Time: 20 minutes 
Cook Time: 60 minutes

Preheat oven to 350ยบ F. In large mixing bowl combine water, RED GOLD® CRUSHED TOMATOES,  RED GOLD® DICED TOMATOES with BASIL, GARLIC & OREGANO, Italian seasoning, red pepper flakes, and salt.

Cover the bottom of a 9x13x2-inch baking pan with 1½ cups of sauce mixture.  Arrange 1/3 of noodles on top of sauce, slightly overlapped.  Top with ½ of ricotta cheese, ½ of the zucchini slices, ½ of the chicken sausage slices, 1 cup of mozzarella cheese and 1 cup of sauce.  Repeat layers and top with last 1/3 of noodles and the remaining sauce.  Sprinkle with remaining mozzarella and Parmesan cheese.

Cover tightly with foil and bake for 1 to 1½ hours; until noodles are cooked. Let stand for 10 minutes before serving.

The recipe makes 12 servings, but you could divide the recipe into two 9x9-inch baking dishes and freeze for a future dinner.

Editor's Note: Some of the products here were provided to me at no cost by Red Gold. The opinions expressed here, as always, are my own. Thanks, Red Gold!

Monday, January 27, 2014

Baked Three Pepper Quesadillas

The Super Bowl is only days away and game day is a big deal for those of us that like to cook and entertain! I'm off the hook again this year as our good friends Tara and Nick are hosting their annual Super Bowl bash and all we have to bring is a drink... which I am more than okay with!

For those of you that are hosting a Super Bowl party, first, God bless you. Second, here's a great easy for easy cheesy quesadillas to serve at your gathering! These quesadillas are baked in the oven, so they are super easy to make because you can bake several at one time. Serve them up with a selection of sour cream, salsa, and guacamole (my pick) for dipping and you are all set!

The three pepper combination is really delicious: some heat from the jalapenos and  pepper jack cheese and a little sweetness from the sauteed red bell peppers. This is also a meatless snack, so it's perfect for vegetarian and carnivorous guests alike.

Looking for some more Super Bowl recipe inspiration? Check out my Party Appetizers board on Pinterest or this post with a great Super Bowl recipe round up!

  • 1 Tbs. olive oil, divided
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 jalapeno pepper, seeded, ribs removed, diced
  • 1 red bell pepper, seeded, ribs removed, thinly sliced
  • 6 medium flour tortillas
  • 6 oz. pepper jack cheese, shredded *I used Cabot Pepper Jack
  • Guacamole, sour cream, or salsa, for serving

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Heat 1/2 Tbs. olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add salt and onions and saute for 3-5 minutes until they begin to soften. Add jalapenos and bell peppers to the skillet and cook for another 10 minutes, until all vegetables are soft and slightly browned.

Brush one side of 3 of the tortillas lightly with olive oil and arranged oil side down on a baking sheet. Sprinkle 1 oz. of cheese on top of each tortilla and then spread the onion and pepper mixture evenly over the top of each cheese-covered tortilla. Sprinkle the remaining 3 oz. of cheese evenly over the top of each tortilla.

Brush one side of the remaining 3 tortillas with olive oil and place oil side up on top of the three pepper and cheese-topped tortillas.

Bake for 12 minutes. Gently flip each quesadilla and bake for an additional 5 minutes.

Remove from oven and allow to cool for 3-5 minutes or until cool enough to handle. Transfer to a cutting board and slice each quesadilla into 6 triangles.

Serve warm with dip of your choice.

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Friday, January 24, 2014

Recipe Re-Do: Mushroom Ravioli & Chicken in a Rosemary White Wine Pan Sauce

Lately I have been making a huge point of cleaning out and purging unwanted items from my apartment. I'm not sure if it's the feeling of a new year and a new start, the idea that we may be able to move out later this year, or maybe the frigid temperatures that are making me stir crazy while I am cooped up here, but I have been making some serious progress. My purging spree continued in the kitchen where I decided it was time to cook with some of the half used items I had around. There's nothing I hate more than throwing away [read: wasting] food, so I've been getting creative in the kitchen to turn these items into delicious meals.

Recently, I rummaged through my refrigerator and found a few sprigs of fresh rosemary, chicken broth, and a little bit of white wine and thought it would be the perfect time to revisit an old recipe. I made this chicken in creamy rosemary sauce about a year ago and decided to give it another go, with a few tweaks, of course. This time around, the chicken is cooked in a sauce that is more pan gravy than cream sauce. It's heavier on the white wine and lighter on the heavy cream so that tangy wine flavor and the woody scent of the rosemary are really the stars here. Paired with tender chicken and Giovanni Rana Mushroom Ravioli, this was a delicious and comforting dinner.


  • 1/2 Tbs. butter
  • 1/2 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 boneless skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1-inch strips
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1/4 cup yellow onion, diced
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 3/4 cup dry white wine
  • 1/4 cup fat free low sodium chicken broth
  • 1/2 Tbs. fresh rosemary leaves, chopped
  • 1/2 cup 1% milk
  • 1/2 Tbs. all-purpose flour
  • Giovanni Rana Mushroom Ravioli, cooked according to package directions
  • Grated Parmesan, for serving (optional)

Melt butter and oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Swirl to coat. Season chicken breast strips with salt and pepper and add to pan. Saute until browned on all sides. Transfer chicken to a plate and set aside.

Add onion to the pan and saute for about 3 minutes until softened, but not browned. Add garlic and cook for 1 more minute.

Pour wine and chicken broth into the pan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, while scraping up any brown bits in the pan. Continue to simmer for about 10 minutes, until liquid has reduced by about half. Stir in rosemary.

In a small bowl, whisk milk and flour together until fully incorporated. Add to the pan, whisking constantly for about 2 minutes. Cook sauce for another 5 minutes, until thickened and season with salt and pepper as needed. Add chicken back to the pan and cook in the sauce until heated through.

Spoon chicken and sauce over cooked ravioli and garnish with grated Parmesan.

*Editor's Note: The pasta was provided by Giovanni Rana at no cost, however all of the opinions expressed here are my own. Thanks again, Giovanni Rana!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

My Top 10 Valentine's Day Gifts for Foodies

Valentine's Day is quickly approaching. Have you thought about gifts yet?

Alex and I are saving up for a year full of travel and, of course, our dream of home ownership so we're heading out for a Valentine's dinner date and forgoing gifts this year. However, that hasn't stopped me from doing a little holiday window shopping-- for myself, of course. So, I have rounded up a few of my favorite Valentine's Day finds for you here. These gifts are perfect for the chef, foodie, or entertainer in your life.

And in the spirit of keeping things frugal in 2014 (my new mantra for the year), none of these gifts costs more than $50... some are as inexpensive as $5!

Top 10 Valentine Gifts for Foodies

1. I'm obsessed with agate coasters and these-- in the pink tones-- are stunning and a perfect gift for someone that loves to entertain in style. **Just realized that this One Kings Lane sale ended and these are no longer available! You can find a similar (slightly more expensive) set at Nordstrom.
2. I love the organic shape of these Williams-Sonoma plates and the heart says "Valentine's Day" without screaming it.
3. How cute are these heart-shaped Staub ramekins? Perfect for baking individually-sized desserts for your sweetheart.
4. This set of two chalkboard cookie jars from Target is an affordable and adorable Valentine's Day gift.
5. This set of 4 spiced sugars from Chicago's Spice House is such a fun gift for any adventurous baker. It includes some really unique options like maple sugar and lavendar vanilla sugar.
6. If you have never had handmade marshmallows, you are in for a treat. The storebought bagged kind don't even compare-- and these gourmet strawberry marshmallows are so pink, pretty, and perfect for Valentine's Day.
7. These West Elm bowls are adorable, festive (without being corny), and come in a few great color combos too. I would use the gray ones all year round.
8. This sparkling Pinot Noir is one of my favorite new wine finds for all occasions, but the pink tone of the wine and the pretty label make it totally Valentine's Day appropriate!
9. I love the vintage quality of these Anthropologie cocktail napkins. They are also fabric, so you can use them on Valentine's Day year after year!
10. These hot pink prep bowls from Sur la Table are perfect. They're functional, affordable, and the color is just so much fun!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

What's For Dinner Wednesday: Slow Cooker Chicken Paprikash

I love using my slow cooker in the winter. When it is frigid outside and the days get dark so early, coming home to a dinner that is pretty much complete-- and also, very hearty-- is a great feeling. It's the little things, right?

This slow cooker chicken paprikash is one of my favorite winter comfort foods. I'm part Hungarian so my mom frequently made this for us as kids and I also got to try the real thing on a trip to Budapest in college, so I have been tweaking my own recipe for it ever since.

If you're not familiar with a paprikash, it is a classic and delicious Hungarian dish that consists of a thick sour cream-based sauce flavored with paprika. It usually includes chicken (which is how I have made it here and prefer it), but some people prepare it with beef or pork too. In many cases, you will see this made strictly with meat in the paprikash sauce. I like to load my slow cooker version up with vegetables like onions, red peppers, carrots, and mushrooms so that-- egg noodles aside-- this is basically a one pot meal.


  • 3 Tbs. all-purpose flour 
  • 6 boneless skinless chicken breasts, sliced into 1/2-inch strips
  • 1/2 Tbs. canola oil
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 1 cups fat free low sodium chicken broth 
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1 Tbs. tomato paste
  • 1 red bell pepper, seeded, ribs removed, and sliced into very thin 1-inch long strips
  • 2 carrots, peeled and cut into a small dice
  • 1 Tbs. paprika
  • 1 Tbs. smoked paprika
  • 1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 1/4 tsp. Kosher salt
  • 1 tsp. ground black pepper 
  • 1/2 cup cremini mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 1/4 cups reduced fat sour cream
  • Hot cooked egg noodles, for serving
In a medium bowl, stir together flour and chicken strips until chicken is adequately coated.

Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet. Add coated chicken strips and cook until chicken is lightly browned, about 4 minutes on both sides.

Add chicken strips, onion, and next 11 ingredients (through cremini mushrooms) to the slow cooker. Cover and cook on low for 6 hours.

Once the chicken mixture is cooked, stir in sour cream until fully blended-- The sauce will be a pale orange-pink color. Cook uncovered on high for an additional 30 minutes to allow sauce to thicken.

Serve hot over cooked egg noodles.

Derived from original recipe by Cooking Light.

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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

My Favorite Ingredients: Balsamic Vinegar

So, I thought I might start a new series here: My Favorite Ingredients.

Although I am always experimenting in the kitchen and trying new recipes, there are several ingredients that I consider to be my go to's. These staple ingredients are always in my kitchen and often times are in my recipes too. Well, now that we've got several recipes to work with here I thought it might be time to round up a a handle that all utilize the same ingredient. This way, when you've got some of my favorites on hand you can come here and find a handful of different ways to use it.

I have round ups for all of my favorites in the works: honey, red wine, Dijon mustard, canned tomatoes, maple syrup, Greek yogurt, and more. Today, however, we're talking all about balsamic vinegar. This is one of my favorite ways to add sweetness and/or tang to a recipe. You can whisk it into a vinaigrette to dress a salad or cook it down to create a sweet and syrupy sauce. So, here are few great recipes utilizing balsamic vinegar: hearty meat dishes, fresh salads, roasted vegetables, or in a light pasta dish.

Apple & Onion Glazed Pork Tenderloin with Savory Sauteed Apples 

Asparagus, Red Pepper, & Potato Salad

Balsamic BBQ Chicken & Roasted Sweet Potato Hash 

Balsamic Glazed Green Beans & Cipollini Onions 

Basil Grilled Chicken Breasts

Brussels Sprout & Apple Detox Salad 

Brussels Sprout Salad

Chicken, Asiago & Sun-Dried Tomato Quesadillas with Greek Yogurt Dip 

Chicken Cherry Avocado Salad

Chicken in Balsamic Tomato Sauce

Fileno Al Mirtilio [Steak with Blueberry Sauce] 

Glazed Pork Loin with Pear & Thyme

Grilled Rosemary Balsamic Tuna

Honey Balsamic Roasted Brussels Sprouts

Seared Scallops with Pomegranate Sauce

Sun-Dried Tomato Pasta Salad with Mozzarella & Pancetta

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Monday, January 20, 2014

Recent Chicago Restaurant Visits: A Special Occasion

So, Valentine's Day is less than a month away... do you have plans yet?

Alex and I have a reservation at Mon Ami Gabi and I'm excited. It's not super fancy, but I love French food and theirs is supposed to be excellent. It's also a Lettuce Entertain You restaurant and we have tons of their gift cards to use. Hooray for having fun while being frugal in 2014!

If you haven't made plans yet and are in need of some inspiration, I have three great recommendations for you. I have dined at all of three of them recently and they are really different, but delicious in their own rights. They're all perfectly suited for a special occasion: romantic atmospheres, upscale menus, and unique features that set them apart from our typical Friday date night locales.

For the foodie...
Storefront Company
Wicker Park

Storefront Company is the perfect restaurant to take someone who is a bit of a food risk taker.  There's no a la carte menu here-- it's a regularly updated tasting menu featuring locally sourced and seasonal ingredients. Normally I am skeptical about restaurants that only offer tasting menus as they are usually fancy, uptight, and really expensive. Storefront Company was none of these things-- in a good way. The atmosphere is a bit more laidback than you might expect from a Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurant. Located in the heart of Wicker Park, the restaurant decor is chic and modern, but the attitude is very relaxed.

I met a friend here for dinner after hearing some great reviews. Dinner started off right when we ordered glasses of what is now one of my new favorite wines: a sparkling Pinot Noir. It's genius. And difficult to track down, but I managed to locate a few bottles of this Juve y Camps Cava Brut Rose at Binny's in downtown Chicago.

As for the food, you now know my feelings on tastings menus. However, what I do love about them is that they push me outside of my comfort zone, forcing me to try foods that I would have normally shied away from like rabbit heart and foie gras, to name a few. We dined on six courses that evening, but I will spare you the details of each one-- that's a post in itself and with as often as their seasonal menu changes, you will enjoy something totally different when you dine there. So, let me tell you about my favorites....

Our third course was the Duck Egg (above) and when it arrived, it was nothing like I expected. The egg was prepared three ways: There was a Japanese-style omelet in the center of the bowl, which incorporated the flavors of Brussels sprouts and foie gras topped with a creamy egg custard sauce and garnished with lovely meringue leaves. It looked pretty enough to be a dessert, but the flavor was decidedly savory, rich, and totally unexpected.

After the duck egg, our fourth course arrived. I have never tried squab before-- likely because the idea of young pigeon does not often equal deliciousness for mainstream diners like myself. However, I loved it! The preparation was fabulous: the sweet wintery flavors of quince and vanilla along with hearty endive and rutabaga really complimented the squab well. I ate every bite of this one!

Even better than the chocolatey dessert course, for me, was the cheese course. A creamy petit livarot was served with a boozy pomegranate sauce and jelly, and walnut bread. It was sweet, savory, tart, creamy, and just wonderful.

And the best thing about a restaurant with a tasting menu? They almost always send you home with a treat. And I love that. These little chocolate coconut cookies were perfect and so rich. A great way to end a delicious and interesting dinner.
Storefront Company on Urbanspoon

For an old school date night...
Bavette's Bar & Bouef
River North

If you're looking to impress someone who is a bit more of a food traditionalist-- or you just want to have a good old-fashioned Chicago steakhouse date, Bavette's tops my list of recommendations. It has more of a 1920's European steakhouse vibe than your run-of-the-mill fancy steakhouses. You know the ones-- they're a little musty and feel like an old boys club? Bavette's is a perfect mix of classic and cool. Upscale, but not stuffy, with dim lighting and some very cool vintage-y decor.

Alex and I dined here for our anniversary dinner-- a special occasion, indeed. And we both left feeling happy and totally stuffed. Everything we ate here was perfectly prepared and seasoned. It's a place that you immediately know that you'd like to visit again.

Bavette's and their sister restaurants-- including Au Cheval, which I told you about before-- all serve this over the top thick cut maple bacon as a side dish that everyone raves about. We had it at Au Cheval so Alex was anxious to order it again... I talked him out of it since we both planned on ordering steaks and we found a good compromise: A perfect salad of watercress, roasted tomatoes, and a simple vinaigrette served with two slices of their signature bacon. The flavor combo of this salad is simple, but works beautifully together. Sweet and salty bacon, tangy vinaigrette, sweet roasted tomatoes, and peppery watercress... perfection.

As I mentioned, Alex and I both ordered steaks for our entrees. He opted for the steak frites, a generous flatiron steak served with a huge portion of their thick cut fries. I went for the petite duchess cut filet. A filet is always my go to steak order and because we were eating so much other food here, the petite cut was perfect. Bavette's serves it with more of the watercress and roasted tomatoes, which although I had already enjoyed in the salad, but they compliment the steak perfectly. It was all finished off with a delicious and creamy Bearnaise sauce on the side.

In my opinion, the side dish menu at Bavette's is just as much of a showstopper as the entrees. Several of our friends had raved about the elote style corn side dish, so I knew walking in that this was on our list. The corn is creamy with a hint of spice and super tangy from the lime juice. In addition to that we ordered the hashbrowns too. They were so good! A perfect balance of crispy edges and soft insides all topped with a generous serving of sweet caramelized onions.

Another menu item that has come highly recommended by every friend that has tried it, is the chocolate cream pie. Well, I'm one of those people now. As you can imagine, we were really fully before dessert even arrived but this was so delicious that we almost finished it all anyway. It's a chocolate crust with a creamy chocolate filling that is light, but also firm-- and not in that gross eggy custard way. Topped with a huge dollop of fresh whipped cream, this is the ultimate dessert. One that cannot be missed, for sure... even if you have to order it to go!
Bavette's Bar and Boeuf on Urbanspoon

For the romantic...
RM Champagne Salon
West Loop

If you're looking for a romantic date night, look no further than RM Champagne Salon. I have told you about RM before after I met up with Kit for patio cocktails on a summer evening. Well, I had a chance to go back for dinner with Alex recently and it was a totally different experience! The restaurant is small and cozy with dim lighting, ornate French-inspired decor, and a roaring fireplace... even without hearing about the food, you're ready to make a reservation, aren't you?

The menu at RM features a variety of modern twists on traditional French dishes with a variety of entrees and also a ton of great options for sharing too-- which is perfect for date night. Alex and I immediately found two appetizers to order: he loves deviled eggs more than anyone I have ever met, so when he spotted their version topped with Maine lobster. Like many deviled eggs before them, I didn't try them because Alex devoured them all. Luckily, I had the foresight to order one RM's Alsatian flatbreads topped with onions, bacon, and cheese. It's the same flatbread (a.k.a. a tarte flambee) that they served in all of the bars I visited in Strasbourg, France with my college girlfriends. The toppings are really rich, but the thin crispy crust is the perfect and canvas and the serving size is great for sharing.

I ordered the buckwheat crepe for my entree. Tender crepes are topped with a warm spinach salad, apples, melty brie, bacon lardons, and a sunnyside-up egg. It was a little breakfast-like, but the flavor combination sounded so French and tasty that I couldn't resist. I think that anything topped with a runny egg is delicious and this was no exception. For a dish with several filling elements, the portion size was perfect-- it was satisfying, but not so big that I didn't have room for the appetizers or for stealing a few frites off of Alex's plate.

And then, of course, we needed to save room for dessert. And RM is one of my new favorite places to order dessert. RM offers a menu of mignardises, or rather, a selection of bite size sweet treats that you can order a la carte. They offer several kinds of French macarons (which I love), truffles, handmade marshmallows, and artisan versions of mainstream chocolate candy bars. Alex and I each ordered a few to sample and it was such a fun way to end the meal-- not with a big rich dessert, but with a handful of different miniature confections!
RM Champagne Salon on Urbanspoon

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